Making sense of the Avon red zone

The new crew: Regenerate Christchurch managers, Chris Mene, Ivan Iafeta and Rob Kerr, in the red-zone.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

The new crew: Regenerate Christchurch managers, Chris Mene, Ivan Iafeta and Rob Kerr, in the red-zone.

It could be a third, a third and a third, he says. The 430 hectare Avon residential red-zone could be a third public green space, a third flood management projects, and a third the flashy housing developments which would help pay for the rest.

Ouch. That kind of comment from Christchurch landscape architect Geraint Howells is likely to be prodding at a raw wound.

It won't go down well with the many thousands of families cleared out of suburbs like Avonside, Dallington and Burwood – the home-owners who left convinced their land was "damaged beyond repair" by the Canterbury earthquakes.

But Howells says with public consultation on the future of the red-zone finally getting started, there has been enough pussy-footing around.

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People need to know if the red-zone is really going to be a $1 billion taxpayer gift to Christchurch – a city-to-sea fun park filled with boating lakes, urban forests and adventure playgrounds as many seem to expect – or is the Crown expecting to square its debts on its investment?

And even for Christchurch's own social and economic benefit, says Howells, it may make better sense for the east to be repopulated with new homes, new businesses, a more normal balance of activities.

Just think of the council's maintenance bill if the entire red-zone becomes a recreational park. "It couldn't be sustained. The amount our rates would have to go up to manage that much land would be just too expensive."

So time to get real, says Howells.

And the first indications of what getting real will look like should be known by Christmas.

Regenerate Christchurch, the new joint Crown and council authority tasked with creating the city's recovery plans, has announced it is beginning the red-zone discussion with a trial section – the short stretch of river properties running through the Avon Loop from Barbadoes St in the city down to Stanmore Rd.

Regenerate chief executive Ivan Iafeta​ says the goal is to submit a draft outline plan to Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Gerry Brownlee for approval by the end of December.

Empty fields: The suburbs have been cleared and regeneration decisions can now be made.
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

Empty fields: The suburbs have been cleared and regeneration decisions can now be made.

If it gets Brownlee's nod, it is likely to be a guide to the way the whole river corridor down to Bexley and New Brighton will be handled.

And Iafeta says at least at the level of broad principle, the possibility of housing or other commercial development returning to the red-zone will be broached from the outset.

"The purposes of the Regeneration Act include the social, cultural, environmental and economic recovery of those areas. So we have to clearly articulate what that economic case is we are looking to respond to – declare that right up front," Iafeta says.

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How might it all shape up then? Howells, of landscape architecture consultancy Creative Intentions, admits he is only one of many who have been giving the Avon red-zone some thought. But he does this sort of thing for a living.

Before settling in Christchurch with his Kiwi wife in 2010, Howells worked on projects like the UK's Eton Dorney Olympic rowing lake.

And it was because of this background that he got involved in some of the early discussions led by groups such as the Avon-Otakaro Network and East Lake Trust, going so far as to draw up his own general masterplan for the red-zone.

Quickly sketching a planner's viewpoint, Howells says the problem is that the various community groups have come up with a great collection of ideas for the public use of the red-zone, yet no-one is really addressing the issue of how it will all be paid for.

The list of ambitions has become familiar. Central is the proposal for a 2km long rowing course and watersport facility stretching from Kerrs Reach to Horseshoe Lake.

Together with a whitewater kayaking centre with pumped runs and a cable-towed wakeboard lake – water skiing behind a winch – this would give Christchurch a quite remarkable freshwater sports complex, says Howells.

Then another chunk of the red-zone in Avonside has been earmarked for EdenNZ, an eco-attraction cum research venture modelled on the hugely successful Eden Project in Cornwall, England.

Over in Burwood, another community group wants a fenced eco-sanctuary running from Travis Wetland to the river bank. That would bring native bush, kiwi and tuatara into Christchurch.

If all three of these flagship proposals come about, Howells says it will be gob-smacking – especially when combined with heritage gardens, community farms, cycle paths, wetland walks and other red-zone projects.

Boy plays in abandoned playground: An argument for housing is that it brings life back to the area.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Boy plays in abandoned playground: An argument for housing is that it brings life back to the area.

What other city of Christchurch's size could boast of so much packed into the one place? However the money to build and maintain such facilities has to come from somewhere.

Then another consideration is the Avon corridor must be treated primarily as a flood management project, says Howells. The city has been bent out of shape in a way that makes the surrounding green-zone, suburbs like St Albans, Richmond and Shirley, more poorly draining than before.

The council is going to have to look carefully at the red-zone in terms of a system of stop-banks, flood ponds and stormwater runs. And that infrastructure spending is going to be another cost the city has to bear.

This is where adding some level of housing to the mix can make a difference, Howells says. It is about finding the possible economic synergies.

Pulling out a large map of the red-zone, Howells says it may surprise many that the Avon corridor can even be reinhabited. The talk has been the area is so broken and flood-prone that it would cost $500 a square metre to make any of it buildable.

"That came from a study of Porritt Park. It's extortionate. And it's based on old technology."

Howells says importing ground repair equipment used in the US and Japan – machinery that can compact large areas of land efficiently – the actual price might be more like $50 per sqm. Or $25,000 to $50,000 a section.

Then if you are going to be digging out metres of soil to build boating lakes and flood ponds anyway, the mounds of soil might as well be used to create raised foundations for small adjacent housing subdivisions, says Howells.

"Why pay to cart it away?" he asks. If development becomes part of the deal, the public costs start to become offset against each other.

With the Government standing to recover its red-zone expenses by the commercial sale of part of the land, it could then afford to gift the rest to the council or community trusts for $1. Everything begins to look more financially viable.

Howells says the community will probably not like it, but the subdivisions would have to be upmarket. It will be relatively expensive land sitting on very expensive views. "You'd be right next to the Eden project or the boating lake."

So the best return for the least amount of development would be from building fancy apartment and town house complexes.

However he argues the eastern suburbs would get social benefit from doing luxury developments as they would raise property prices in surround green-zone neighbourhoods.

"People don't like the idea of the rich moving out the poor. But what you'd actually get is a ripple effect in the streets around. It would act as a catalyst for regeneration in the area."

Geraint Howells: Red-zone land might be fixable for less than $50,000  a section.
IAIN MCGREGOR/FAIRFAX NZ

Geraint Howells: Red-zone land might be fixable for less than $50,000 a section.

Howells says he sees room for business park developments too. If the red-zone can be repopulated with several thousand people paying decent rates to the city, it again contributes to the red-zone as a sustainable proposition. It creates a better balance.

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So allowing housing is the trade-off that can let other things happen. Then what makes him optimistic is that there are also obvious synergies between using the red-zone for recreation and the city's need to prioritise flood management. Once more, one can support the other.

Howells says the Eden project, for example, could make water treatment its focus. "It could turn itself into a water research establishment, teaching people how to manage stormwater, how to clean water, how to re-use water, all that sort of stuff."

It is going to be easier for Eden to raise its own funding if it is seen to be something quite logical in the context of red-zone.

Likewise more money is going to be forthcoming for water sport lakes and eco-sanctuaries that act also as a network of flood ponds.

Howells says even the rowing lake could be used as an emergency stormwater retention area. "Although it would be your last resort because you'd have to close it down for a month afterwards."

And the whitewater kayak facility could have a double use too.

Set up right, in normal times it would produce torrents of aerated water that could be fed into the boating lake to help make that clean and swimmable. Then in times of flood, its powerful pumps could become part of the east's flood defences.

Howells says a truly integrated approach to designing the red-zone could open up all sorts of unexpected possibilities. His own pet project is a free electric bus service connecting Cathedral Sq to New Brighton.

Howells says the technology, using induction plates buried in the road to charge up passing electric vehicles, looks the way of the future. A hi-tech electric road and cycleway through the red-zone would be an eye-catching way to contribute to New Brighton's regeneration as well.

And again, if there are new homes and businesses sprinkled along the route, it would help justify the overall investment.

That is why he believes the Avon red-zone corridor needs to be seen as a third, a third, a third. Any regeneration plan is going to have to include the possibility of land remediation and commercial development to make the other things the city wants to do more affordable.

Green visions: How the river walks and eco sanctuaries could look according to community groups.
SUPPLIED

Green visions: How the river walks and eco sanctuaries could look according to community groups.

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The fear of many is of concealed agendas. A reason no-one wants to talk about house-building is that the dreams of eco-parks and boating lakes could be snatched away as soon as it is publicly conceded there might be a buck to be made on the land.

It has not helped that Otakaro Ltd, the Crown's representative in the regeneration discussions, has continued with the habitual secretiveness that characterised the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

But Regenerate Christchurch has been making the right noises about the red-zone consultation being open and transparent. And Iafeta has begun to assemble an impressive team.

Regenerate's general manager of partnerships and engagement, Chris Mene, is not just a health board member and familiar face in local recovery circles. Iafeta points out he is an accredited trainer for the International Association for Public Participation as well.

Rob Kerr, the new general manager of the residential red-zone, is also used to being "public facing" says Iafeta.

Kerr was Waimakariri District Council's infrastructure manager after the September 2010 quake, then fronted central city projects like the Margaret Mahy playground and earthquake memorial.

Iafeta says if Regenerate Christchurch has not made that much impact on the public as yet, it is because these managers are just coming onboard.

Regenerate still has to recruit the rest of its 25 staff. And it will be a few more weeks before it moves into its own office on the old McKenzie and Willis site in High St.

However Iafeta, who was himself general manager of first community wellbeing, then the residential red zone at Cera, promises the organisation will be quite different from what has gone before in including the community in its decisions at every step of the way.

"We are operating in an environment of negative trust, as most recovery agencies are. So creating that trust and credibility is going to have be something we work really hard on," he says.

This means Regenerate has a policy of publishing all the available red-zone information in handy form on its website. "We have created a central place where people who want to know about the land can access all of the existing technical information."

And rather than the usual routine of just asking the public to respond to a published plan, Iafeta says he wants to see a continuous consultation where the community is always in the loop, helping to shape the emerging view.

It is an ambitious exercise. But Iafeta says it should also be a quite logical process as, in the end, everything is going to be determined by the realities of the land.

Setting priorities: Flood management is the obvious issue for much of the red-zone, like this New Brighton street.
KIRK KARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

Setting priorities: Flood management is the obvious issue for much of the red-zone, like this New Brighton street.

For instance, the question of whether areas can be remediated for housing is either going to be ruled in or ruled out at an early stage. Is the cost closer to $500 or $50 per sqm?

Iafeta says part of Regenerate's job is going to be to fill in the knowledge gaps. Land contamination could be one of the ignored issues which might make development too expensive to contemplate.

So it starts with what is even possible. Then Iafeta says cultural and heritage considerations – what the red-zone means to Maori and the people of Christchurch – is the next overlay of questions. This again may rule things in or out from the beginning.

Only after that does the discussion get into particular community projects and questions about general outcomes like flood management. It will all sort itself out step by step, Iafeta says.

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So no hidden agendas or predestined outcomes, Iafeta assures. But others are not so certain.

Evan Smith of the Avon-Otakaro Network, which is acting as the co-ordinating group for the various community projects, says there is a question about how hard remediation of the red-zone is going to be pushed.

Smith says it is likely that some kind of redevelopment is going to have to be allowed on the fringes of the red-zone. If nothing else, neighbouring green-zone properties will want to be able to turn around to take advantage of attractions such as cycle paths and boating lakes.

"It's probably not ideal to have people's back sections facing onto the red-zone. So there's potential to look at the zoning to let more intensified housing go there."

To do this in controlled fashion might require a mixed release of green and red-zone land, Smith says. You can imagine a ribbon development of town-houses, shops and cafes that is also gives better public access to the red-zone.

"But it's not as if Christchurch is short of space for new housing," says Smith. And with the Government likely to recoup much of the cost of the red-zone through owning its land insurance policies as well, there is no obvious need to push for a lot of building.

So Howells' third, a third, and a third, certainly sounds too bullish, says Smith. With sea level rise, flood management has to be the main long-term priority. And a patchwork of eco-parks and watersport facilities still goes best with that general goal.

"Many places overseas, like Boston and Japan, are widening their river corridors by demolishing houses. They realise the land has more community value as riparian floodplain."

And despite Regenerate Christchurch's vow that public commonsense will speak loudest, Smith says he is worried the Government, through Otakaro Ltd, appears still to hold the real decision making power.

Smith says the wording of Otakaro's constitution is opaque. But it looks to reserve the right to do its own thing if it doesn't end up agreeing with a regeneration plan. And who knows if there are developers waiting the chance to cut a quick deal on prime blocks of land?

The Avon Loop – close enough to the central city for hotel developments – is an example, Smith says.

"If something came along offering a greater direct commercial return to the Government, it looks like they could divest the property straightaway. The legislation appears to let them do it right now."

So community groups hope for a fair process, yet they are still on their guard. And reselling the land from which so many people were forced to move is going to remain a flash point, no matter how strong the economic logic, says Smith.

 - Stuff

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